After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”When I read today’s text from Matthew, I feel anxious. When I saw this was the gospel text for the day, my stomach dropped. I don't know about you, but I didn't come here this morning, at the end of our holiday celebrations, wanting to hear a story about children getting murdered. We're here this morning to breathe in the last few breaths of the holidays, aren't we? We'll sing some concluding Christmas carols and enjoy the lights and decorations one final week. In the next few days, we'll raise a toast to the New Year, maybe take in a football game or two, visit with friends, enjoy the final days off, and then it will be back to reality. Back to work, back to school, back to the ol' grind. The bright lights of Christmas will be replaced with the colder, darker, wetter reality of winter in January. The holiday cheer that we might have absorbed will return to our usual fare of...what? What is your usual outlook? Is it one of cheer or sadness? Excitement or boredom? Peace or anxiety?
Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”
Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:
A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.
Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”
Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered Israel. When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Matthew 2:13-23
As I said, when I read today’s text from Matthew, I feel anxious. The intensity of the story scares me. Three traveling scholars, we call them The Magi, welcome the prospect of a new king, but the local monarch in Jerusalem, King Herod, isn’t so excited. He responds with the kind of violence we'd rather not think about, an over-the-top brutality we'd rather not pair with our holiday cheer.
Jesus is taken out of the country at this point of Matthew's story. But his safety is only for a season. His escape from violence is only temporary. We all know the climax of the story: eventually the powers and authorities will try to protect their influence by killing Jesus, too. So, as the poet W. H. Auden wrote:
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,The troubling part is that in the process of eliminating the Christ child, Herod has scores of other little ones killed. And there it is . . . there’s the reality we go back to this week. There’s the kind of world we live in. We celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace and then we return to a world of bloodshed where innocent children suffer and are killed every day. This is the point of the sermon were I am supposed to find a nice story that will help us to feel better and to make things alright. But there aren’t too many nice stories, are there? I know too many people who suffered as children, who were abused and neglected. There aren't any nice stories that make their pain all better. There isn't enough holiday cheer to swathe the reality.
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.
So, what do we do? Even in the mist of such perverse violence, I believe there is some good news for us today. It has do with waking up to a whole new way of living – a new way that does not run away from violence but faces it.
I just mentioned the poet W. H. Auden. Auden wrote a Christmas oratorio entitled, For the Time Being. He wrote it during the dark times of World War II. His concern in the poem is not simply to speak of the Nativity of Christ, but also to think about its impact upon the mundane world of the everyday. In part of this long poem, King Herod is a cultural commentator who watches the twentieth century unfold. Herod skewers a Western culture that has become lost to spineless sectarianism. He is unhappy with people who have misplaced the ability to make decisions through rational consensus. While the historical King Herod may have been a vulgar and paranoid Roman puppet, Auden’s Herod is a proud and well-intentioned administrator who loves order. He fears that the infant, whom the scholars from the East are calling God, will replace objective reason and order with personal visions and social chaos. So he makes a decision. In Herod’s words, “Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid.”
Auden's Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if doing so means innocents must be slaughtered. Herod doesn’t want to kill, but he predicts what will happen centuries later if the Christ Child survives. He says, “Reason will be replaced by Revelation … Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish …”
Herod sits in his castle, making sure that everything is decent and orderly. His job is to ensure that life is rationally arranged. Into his balanced, structured world come three magi who turn it all upside down with the news that God has been born. If people follow this Christ child, then there goes order. Decorum is out the window. The world will be filled with religious fanatics and people who look to their own individual faith to solve their problems instead of relying on rational and tested cures.
I suspect most of us, in our own way, can understand. We may have trouble with a vulnerable God who invites us to turn our life projects upside down and follow the Christ to an uncertain end. When those who stand for the old way of doing things, like Herod, are confronted with this strange and unsettling possibility, they strike out with all that they can muster. Herod becomes the symbol for all systems that refuse to change.
What are the options? We can accept life as it is and try to impose order on it, even if that means violence. We can block out anyone or anything that shakes up our world and be carried along with the tide of useless therapies and distrust of formal politics, skeptical of authority and prey to superstition. We can participate in political language that is corroded by fake pity and euphemism. We can strike out against those who challenge us. These are the ways of Herod. Each of them is a form of exclusion or elimination. It’s what Herod does to maintain his power and sense of balance. It’s what we do when we feel challenged. We exclude because we are uncomfortable with anything that disturbs our well-crafted identities. Exclusion and elimination expose a withered faith.
I love Auden’s phrase, “Justice will be replaced by Pity.” It is in that phrase where I hear some good news. The German political theorist Hannah Arendt described pity as a response to suffering heeded at a distance. Listen to that again; pity is a response to suffering heeded at a distance. If you pity someone, you don’t have to get involved. You can watch all the terribleness from a safe distance, cluck your tongue, and walk away if you so choose. You can say, “Oh, look at those poor, unfortunate souls over there,” while feeling fortunate or lucky that the same thing is not happening to you. Pity is easy.
Justice is quite different. Justice is messy. Justice is difficult. Justice takes hands-on commitment to forge a more humane and compassionate world. Justice does not automatically flow from our pity. Justice is not satisfied with platitudes and double talk. Justice knows that when a person sees what is wrong in the world, it does not mean he or she will do something to fix it. Like W.H. Auden’s Herod, Good people do not always challenge the status quo. Upright people do not always speak truth to power or take personal action against that which keeps us from living into our fullest potential for the common good.
Pity creates awareness without action.Next week, life goes back to normal, in all of its ordinary-ness. In all of its potential for terribleness. In all of its possibility for good. Whether we celebrate the warm companionship of the holidays or endure the flat stretches of life, Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, continually invites us to follow him into the difficult, messy, wonderful world of new possibilities for compassionate justice. It’s a world where we people of faith don’t look away from evil. We face it. In a world where justice is replaced by pity, We follow Jesus into a new world where pity is replaced by justice. Justice means that we are responsible for how our actions influence our society in its treatment of the "least of these.” The stranger. The outcast. Those who are lost. Those who are struggling. As this Christmas season comes to an end and another new year comes upon us, I will be looking for ways to follow the Christ.
Justice is awareness in action.
To quote another poet, Franz Kafka wrote:
You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided
“In the meantime,” as Auden says in his Christmas oratorio:
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,Sources:
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.